Photography courtesy of Lowell Washburn, all rights reserved.
By now, I think everyone has heard how Al Gore claims to have invented the internet. It’s a well-known story. But the inconvenient truth of the matter is that the former Vice President never actually made the claim. Instead, the oft repeated, urban legend sprang from a misrepresentation of comments made by Gore during a ‘99 campaign interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer. Go figure.
But although we’ve all heard that bogus internet story time and again, fewer people – like maybe nobody – has ever heard the true-life account of how yours truly was responsible for the invention of the buffered shotgun load. OK – maybe that’s a stretch. I’ll walk it back a bit and just say that I at least developed the first experimental version of the now outrageously popular shotgun ammo. I should also note that my invention did not result from any careful thought or planning on my part. Instead, my shotgunning prototype came about purely by accident – kind of like the guy who stumbled while walking across the kitchen floor and invented the peanut butter & jelly sandwich.
For the benefit of those unfamiliar with the ammo, perhaps I should clarify. Buffered shot shells are produced by using finely granulated plastic to fill the air spaces between individual shotgun pellets. When the shell is fired, the synthetic buffering cushions the accelerating shot charge which greatly reduces pellet deformation, resulting in tighter patterns and increased downrange efficiency. Ammunition companies have spent fortunes developing and improving buffered shotgun shells. But the very first of these highly efficient loads – you know, the one I invented – was not developed under closely controlled conditions at the Remington, Winchester or Federal Ammunition Company laboratories. Instead, the original recipe was cooked up right in the bottom of my duck boat under actual field conditions. Really!
The landmark event occurred long ago in a time when ducks were plentiful, and our culture had yet to be infected with the social illnesses of iPhone, Facebook, Twitter and all those other electronic distractions that currently prevent people from focusing on any single subject for more than two or three seconds tops.
It was mid-November and a full-fledged winter storm system was sweeping into the northern Great Plains. The Dakotas and most of western Minnesota were already buried in wet snow. Schools and roadways were closing. In Iowa, strong winds, possible sleet, but no measurable snowfall was predicted. From a duck hunter’s perspective, the conditions couldn’t have been better — an absolutely perfect day for heading to the marsh. At least that was the unanimous, predawn consensus when Ed Kotz, Bob Humberg, Guy Leath, and I assembled at Cerro Gordo County’s, Zirbel Slough boat ramp.
Launching our one-man duck boats into the slough, we began poling toward the far shore. Getting there was no easy task. The wind had already whipped the open water into a cauldron and forward progress was measured an inch at a time. But cattail beds were abundant that year, and once we made it to the taller vegetation, a maze of natural potholes provided quieter waters. Arriving at one of the larger openings, we quickly emptied our boats of their cargo. The end result was a communal spread of around 120 or so decoys.
By the time we had our boat blinds in place, a reluctant dawn was making its appearance. Etched against the somber overcast, we could soon detect a constant parade of high flying ducks – mostly mallards — racing southward across the sky. Many of those flight weary flocks had already begun scaling down from altitude and were piling into the cattails like nobody’s business. By now, it was becoming obvious that the winter storm was really cleaning house up the North Country.
Legal shooting hours had not yet arrived, and time stood still as the air filled with the hiss of set wings. From behind the sheltering curtain of cattails, we were treated to the near constant chatter of mallard hens. As incoming ducks continued to fog the marsh, our retrievers began to whine with contagious enthusiasm. Our four-legged friends could already sense that it was going to be a red-letter day.
Shooting time finally arrived and our hunt began. But although a near steady stream of ducks began pouring into our decoys, the shooting was not as easy as you might think. If anything, the already roaring wind was on the rise. Despite the fact that flocks were descending to our pothole in grand style, there were plenty of misses. But there were also plenty of hits, and our bag of ducks – mostly mallards with a sprinkling of wigeon and pintail – began to add up. The dogs were getting the workout they desired, and before long we had neared our legal limit.
We heard a shrill honk and looking up, spotted a lone blue phase, “eagle headed” snow goose laboring into the wind. Although we hadn’t set any goose decoys that day, we did have a couple of goose calls which we immediately pressed into service. When the big bird came to investigate, Humberg folded the goose with a well-placed load of #6s from his Remington Wingmaster.
The ducks kept coming and before long everyone had reached their daily bag limit – that is everyone except me. I still had one duck to go. I was shooting a Navy Arms double barreled, muzzleloading 12 gauge that day. But there was a problem. Although I still had plenty of black gun powder and cardboard wadding, I had completely exhausted my supply of #7 ½ lead shot. Everyone else was shooting conventional factory ammo, which I couldn’t use.
But there was still a dim shred of hope. In the excitement of repeatedly reloading my shotgun, I had managed to spill a quantity of loose shot onto the floor of the cockpit. Although most of the floor was soaking wet and muddy, there was a small, somewhat dry area to my back. There, scattered amongst a pulverized mix of dried marsh muck, cookie crumbs, and duck weed; lay a good number of fugitive lead pellets. Carefully sweeping the area with my glove, I eventually gathered enough of the mix to form a partial load. Pouring the dubious blend down the right barrel, I seated the slightly damp concoction over 90 grains of black powder and then sealed the load with a thin fiber wad.
The next flock of mallards appeared and, upon spotting our decoys, immediately set their wings. The moment of reckoning had arrived. For better or worse, hit or miss; my final shot would bring our hunt to its conclusion. Huddled beneath my marsh grass blind, I waited until the closest drake hovered for a landing. Shouldering the muzzleloader, I pointed the barrels in his direction and dropped the hammer. The old shotgun roared with authority — belching a fiery cocktail of cookie crumbs, duckweed, smoke, and lead. I’ll never really know how much shot was in that pitiful charge or just how much the duckweed and cookie crumb buffering affected my pattern. What I do know is that the load was enough to tip that big Greenhead over on its back. A cheer went up as the duck hit the water. Our hunt was over. The morning would go down as one of the most spectacular migrations any of us had ever witnessed.
Years later, ammunition manufacturers would begin touting the increased efficiency and long-range lethality of their particular brand of buffered shotgun shells. Little did they realize that the very first buffered shot prototype had been successfully tested, purely as a matter of necessity, many seasons before. Not in their sanitized, state-of-the-art laboratories by guys wearing safety glasses and white lab coats – but rather in the bottom of a muddy, homemade duck boat during a stormy November morning on northern Iowa’s Zirbel Slough.
Postscript: By the time our hunt ended, the predicted sleet had arrived. Driven by the storm’s fury, the frozen pellets made it feel as if your face was being sand blasted. Consequently, there were no great Hero Photos taken on the marsh that November day – just a mad dash for the boat ramp at the end of the hunt. The only surviving documentation of the event is a grainy 35mm snapshot taken in the storage room of Sports Unlimited, a former Clear Lake sports shop.
Photo: [From left to right] Guy Leath, Ed Kotz, Lowell Washburn, Bob Humberg